Television: Wanted: TV outsider with the spark to reinvent Channel 4

Insiders aren't interested, and executives elsewhere have better things to do, reports Tim Luckhurst
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The Independent Online

The news last week that Mark Thompson is to leave his job at Channel 4 earlier than expected to take up his new job as director-general of the BBC has added new urgency to the hunt to find a successor.

The news last week that Mark Thompson is to leave his job at Channel 4 earlier than expected to take up his new job as director-general of the BBC has added new urgency to the hunt to find a successor.

"I do not have a specific candidate in mind," says Channel 4's chief Luke Johnson, "but we do not have time for a massive trawl. We hope to have agreed the appointment by the end of July although the successful candidate may start work later than that."

While Channel 4 initially insisted Thompson stay until his successor was found, it was announced on Friday that he'll take over as director-general later this month. In return, the BBC will pay a five-figure sum towards head-hunting costs. Channel 4 has retained the recruitment consultancy Spencer Stuart to help in the search.

The starting point for the board at Horseferry Road is the inevitability of fundamental change. Directors are scrutinising Thompson's parting gift, the suggestion of a merger with Five. Other options on the table include conversion into a public trust. "If we do not evolve, then, in the long term, Channel 4 will die," explains one source. "We have got to adapt. The new chief executive must be someone who understands that."

As yet, no candidates have been approached, but there will be no internal appointment. Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of programmes, has not applied. Janice Hadlow, the head of specialist factual programmes, is said to be "much more interested in becoming controller of BBC 4" and would not be considered suitable if she did express interest in the job. A Channel 4 source says: "Given the pressures, it needs to be an outsider, certainly outside Channel 4, possibly from outside the television industry.

"It may be that we eventually decide to go for one of the usual suspects, but there is a degree of complacency in the television industry. A lot of people at the BBC and ITV have failed to move beyond assumptions that worked when terrestrial channels were dominant. It is not as simple as just appointing someone with commercial acumen, but we do need someone who is not stuck in the traditional mode." None of that rules out the appointment of Jana Bennett, the director of television at the BBC, the role previously occupied by both Michael Grade, the new chairman, and Thompson. Bennett has commercial television experience gained while she ran the TLC cable channel in the US. She also has a good record as a commissioner of factual and arts programming.

It looks like an ideal opportunity for Channel 4 to take its revenge on the BBC for poaching Thompson. But Bennett ruled herself out of the running to be director-general and colleagues say she is at best ambivalent about a move to Channel 4. Her stock at the BBC is high. A BBC executive says: "The revolving door between the BBC and Channel 4 has to stop turning soon. Jana would have a realistic chance of succeeding Thompson if she just stayed here. She is young enough."

That view is shared at Channel 4. Directors are determined it is not seen as a finishing school for BBC high fliers. Candidates such as Bennett and the BBC's head of sport, Peter Salmon, will be taken seriously if they express a long-term interest.

David Elstein, the former Five chief executive, says: "My advice to Luke Johnson is to put half the new chief executive's salary in escrow so that he or she has a real incentive to stay."

The alternative front-runner is Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks. Airey's CV is impressive. A former chief executive of Five, she was controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4 under Grade in the early 1990s. But Airey may consider Channel 4 a minnow compared with her current empire. If it wants her, it will have to approach her the way the BBC approached Thompson - as chosen candidate not one of a shortlist. Airey is hot property and she knows it.

Elstein says that the Channel 4's chairman is right to look beyond the British television industry. "There has been a real unwillingness to look outside the closed monastic circle of those who have done it before, but the talent pool is thin. It is not surprising that existing television chief executives wander between stations. But it does not need to be like that. These jobs are not actually very difficult."

Johnson may not agree that being chief executive of Channel 4 is so straightforward, but he is determined to test the market before making an appointment. One informed insider says: "Television has a tendency to make incestuous appointments. We are starting from the premise that it does not need to be a seasoned television executive. The pool is small these days. The contraction of ITV has deprived us of a generation of regional television chiefs. Channel 4 is open-minded. There really are no front-runners."

It sounds refreshing; proof that the appointment of Johnson as chairman has brought the dynamism Channel 4 needs to face the future. Those who have observed the one time media analyst turned pizza magnate at work are confident that is true. But Johnson will be pleased if candidates of the calibre of Airey and Bennett are interested. The challenge facing Channel 4 is daunting and flexibility in the appointment of a new chief executive may be essential, not just desirable.